Credo, After Reading Gödel: Interview with Roy Whelden

Jun 1, 2016

Composer and viola de gamba performer, Roy Whelden, founded the Galax Quartet in 2005. The Galax Quartet are the featured SFCA+1 guest artist in the San Francisco Choral Artists upcoming concert series, 21st-Century Baroque.

Composer Jason Carl Rosenberg interviewed Roy Whelden about Whelden’s new work, Credo, After Reading Gödel, written specifically for the SF Choral Artists and the Galax Quartet.

Jason Carl Rosenberg: You chose a text that mixes the Roman Catholic Credo with writings of Kurt Gödel. I myself have long been interested in Gödel’s output, in part because of Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. I’m curious though why you decided to use a combination of the traditional Credo with some writings of Gödel.

Roy Whelden: Gödel said that his religion was more theistic than pantheistic, closer to the religion of the churches than to any kind of nature worship. So it felt right to quote from the traditional Credo of the Roman church – or rather a small portion of the traditional Credo. I used only a tiny segment from the beginning (God as omnipotent creator) and a segment from the end (the expectation of eternal life). I combined those with certain sentences from Gödel that had a poetic feel to them.

JCR: The text is completely in Latin. In fact, you had the text by Gödel translated into Latin for this project. Did you choose to have it in Latin so that it would be more seamlessly integrated with the Credo?

RW: Yes, that was an important factor. And I like the sound of Latin, spoken, intoned or sung. I suppose I also wanted to give the text a measure of seriousness and gravity. I wanted it to reflect the fact that Gödel meditated on his ontological proof for nearly three decades. The first notebook entries are from 1941. The final version of the ontological proof is from 1970, after a couple earlier versions from the ’40s and ’50s. He obviously thought it important and I wanted the music and text to have the same serious tone.

JCR: You are a viola da gamba performer. In fact, you started the Galax Quartet that will be accompanying the SF Choral Artists this concert series. How has your knowledge of the Galax Quartet and the viola da gamba shaped your compositional approach in this piece?

RW: The players in the Galax Quartet (which we started a decade ago) are all Baroque instrumentalists: violinists, cellist and the viola da gambist. The instruments are very light, at least when compared to the modern violin family with their metal strings and heavier bows and higher tension. I was worried about balance between the 24 member chorus and the instruments, so I had the strings do very different things from the chorus, using sound registers unused by the chorus. For example, I gave some complex drones to the strings in a very high register, using some unique timbres: sul ponticello, very high harmonics, and the like.

That said, I should add that the chorus/quartet balance issues were dealt in very different and beautiful ways by other composers in this concert. Ted Allen and Robinson McClellan produced wonderful pieces in which the strings play a lot of the time in the same register as the voices, but balance is achieved, in part, by writing passages for solo voices within the chorus, and in part by extreme rhythmic distinctions between voices and strings, etcetera.

JCR: Can you talk a bit more about the relationship in this piece between the strings and the voices and how that relationship is connected with the text?

RW: A portion of the Credo is a parlando intonation by the choir. I wanted to compose a version of this intonation for the string instruments — the parlando being taken over, so to speak, by the strings. I decided that the best way for me to do this was to invent a 12-tone row that had qualities somewhat related to the contours of the intoned speech. In turn, this suggested using the same 12-tone row in the final choral section of the piece when the subject turns to the “other worlds in which we have lived, and the other worlds in which we shall live.” This use of serialism felt right to me since Gödel spent his university years in Vienna at the time that the modern Viennese school— Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg—were first exploring serialism.

Let me add that music did not seem to be all that important to Gödel. I read somewhere that his favorite music was Walt Disney movie music. And he spoke once of “enduring” the one and only concert he ever attended of Handel and Bach. So, I’m not sure that he would have appreciated what I am trying to do with the Credo. Pretty funny, when his name is linked so closely to Bach’s name in that Pulitzer prize-winning book by Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher,Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.